Setting the Record Straight: An Exchange

Martha Skrypuch (July 2, 2013)
Dear Mr. Antourian,
I read with interest your article about the Ottoman WWI Internees from Brantford and would like to clarify some of the points you've made. I am indeed a member of the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association. In addition to the five novels I have written about the Armenian Genocide and the Georgetown Boys, I have written books about the internment of Ukrainians in WWI (my grandfather was an internee and my book Silver Threads was the first commercial book to ever be written on this topic). I also have written about the Holodomor, and have received hate mail and death threats for doing so.
I do not shy away from difficult historical topics.
But that does not mean that I agree with every other member of UCCLA on every single issue. A great point of departure for me with Professor Luciuk is the issue of the Ottoman WWI Internees. Also, there hasn't been a Turkish rep on the endowment board for a number of weeks now. The position is currently vacant. I encourage you to submit names of potential candidates from the affected groups.
I am not working "closely" with Bill Darfler. He shared his clipping file with me, and then I went through the newspaper archives myself and redid the work from scratch, picking up here and there, articles that were missed. I also flew to Kapuskasing and delved into the archives there. I am not naive.
Betty's article from 2010 had a number of errors, one being the spelling of my surname. The other was the quote about the identity of the nationality of the internees. When you go to the actual ships lists -- i.e.--immigration listings from interviews when individuals come to Canada or the US-- the Ottoman internees self-identified as "Turk" (Armenians self-identified as Armenian). As well, one of the guards who accompanied the prisoners on the train up to Kapuskasing kept a journal. In it he describes a fire in one of the boxcars and that all of the prisoners' belongings were destroyed, including their prayer rugs.
Were some of those 100+ Ottoman citizens Sunni Muslim Turks? Probably, but unlikely that there were many. Why? Because the bulk of the people arrested were boarders living in houses rented to them by Armenians. How likely is it that an Armenian would rent a room to a Sunni Muslim Turk in 1914? The Balkan Wars had stratified those communities. There are newspaper clippings (missed by Darfler) of Turks and Armenians coming to blows on the streets of Brantford.
As to the first Muslim funeral in Canada being in Brantford -- hat's a bit of a red herring: the funeral took place in 1912, meaning that person, no matter what his religion was, couldn't have been interned in Kapuskasing in 1914.
Were some of those 100+ Ottoman citizens Armenian? There were certainly at least two, but as a group, Armenians were specifically not interned. Why? Because of their well-documented antagonism to the Ottoman government. As well, Brantford Armenians set up a home guard in defense of Canada. This was well-documented in the newspapers of the time. Why were the two Armenians interned? They had likely broken the law. As an example, if they had crossed the border into the US, that would have been enough to land them into an internment camp.
So who were these people, who were Ottoman citizens, friendly with Armenians but considered Turks by Canada? You nailed it: they were members of other minority groups who were persecuted by the Ottoman government. By the predominance of the name Ali, and the fact that they're from Keghi, they are likely Alevis.
Armenians came to Brantford because Canadian Protestant missionaries paved their way. Those same missionaries also preached to the Alevis. The majority Turks -- Sunni Muslims -- viewed Alevis as apostates. Alevis do not pray 5 times a day, do not worship in mosques, they drink alcohol, women are not veiled, women are encouraged to get an education and are considered equal to men.
When the sultan was in power, mosques were forcibly constructed in Alevi communities and imams were sent in. Alevis would pretend to go along, but at night, they would worship in private in their own traditional way. Alevis were initially drawn to the Young Turk ideals of freedom and equality, but just like the Armenians, these hopes were almost immediately dashed when the ideals were transformed into Turkey for the Turks.
The Canadian government of the time wouldn't know the difference between Alevis and "Turks" and in their ignorance they likely considered Alevism to be Islam -- simply because it wasn't Christian.
I agree with you that these unfortunate souls were abused in the past, and now risk being used for purposes that would cause them to roll in their graves.
If you'd like to know what I think, please ask me directly, rather than speculating.

Gary Antourian (July 6, 2013)
Dear Ms. Skrypuch,
It was nice of you to take the time to set the record straight. I'm not questioning your writing skills or what you have written in the past decade or two. Furthermore, as someone born and raised in the Middle East, I am familiar with the Sunni, Shiite, and Alawite sects and the religious, cultural, and social differences and conflicts among them. I also know of the vile treatment of Armenian, Greek, Assyrian, Kurdish, Jewish, and other minorities by the Ottoman Empire.
The concerns raised in Keghart’s "For the Benefit of the Turkish Ambassador" editorial, my article, and the comments of the readers go beyond the above issues and have deeper and wider ramifications. The core issue is the Turkish denial industry's manipulation of our academia so as to co-opt them (willingly or unwillingly), to spread Turkey's perverse version of the region's history. Ankara does not miss an opportunity, regardless how minuscule, to export its acrimonious campaigns to Canada so as to plant hostility among various segments of our society.
As victims of two genocides, we cannot abdicate--for short-sighted reasons--our responsibilities toward humanity and to allow Turkey to get away with its denialist policies. If we let Turkey succeed, we would be condemning others victims of crimes against humanity to the same vicious and inhuman experience. Other perpetrators of such crimes are watching Turkey and adopting its denialist policies.
I was intrigued with your statement “but that does not mean that I agree with every other member of UCCLA on every single issue. A great point of departure for me with Professor Luciuk is the issue of the Ottoman WWI Internees.” I am pleased to hear such clarification. Maybe had you stated it earlier, you would have prevented the issue from being dragged for so long.
But regardless of your statement, mainstream Ukrainian organizations should also issue a statement clarifying their relationship with the UCCLA and Mr. Luciuk, and maybe dissociate themselves from them. It is unfortunate to see the relationship between our two communities being held hostage to the unwise activities of the UCCLA or individuals affiliated with it. These counterproductive activities have prevailed for the last 24 years. I believe this episode should provide the perfect opportunity for reputable and level-headed leaders and organizations--including academic--of our two communities to come together and once and for all stop self-proclaimed people from damaging our two communities' interests.
Such important public policy issues belong to the public discussion domain. 
Marsha Skrypuch (July 6)
Dear Gary,
I am acutely aware of the denial machine that is the Turkish press. It would have been impossible for me to write my five previous critically-acclaimed and bestselling books on the Armenian Genocide without being aware of it. I go into this current project with the same open eyes.
Re your statement:
"I am pleased to hear such clarification. Maybe had you stated it earlier, you would have prevented the issue from being dragged for so long."
I'm pretty easy to get in touch with. Just Google me. All you have to do is ask. I would appreciate people asking what I think rather than speculating, or putting words in my mouth.
Professor Luciuk is one member of UCCLA and that is all. There are two other Ukrainian lobby groups--the Ukrainian Canadian Congress and the Shevchenko Foundation. He is not a member of either of those as far as I know. The reason he is on the internment fund council is because it was Professor Luciuk who personally discovered the government documents about the internment of Ukrainians in World War I. These documents had been destroyed by the Canadian government. He found them in British archives in the early 1990s.
My Ukrainian grandfather was interned in World War One and he lost all his property. The first book of mine to be published was "Silver Threads", which came out in 1996 and is still in print. It was about my grandfather's internment and was the first commercial book to be published on the topic. I wouldn't have been able to write that book without the benefit of Professor Luciuk's prior research. But much as I admire what he's been able to accomplish in regard to Ukrainian internment recognition, there are many things we have opposite views on.
UCCLA had been petitioning the Canadian government since the mid-'90s to recognize the injustice of the WWI internment operations. The other two Ukrainian lobby groups were pretty useless in this regard for quite some time, but finally Stephen Harper's government did acknowledge the injustice of the internment operations so the other groups jumped on the bandwagon.
I am a member of UCCLA in memory of the injustice done to my own grandfather. UCCLA has put up plaques and monuments on the sites of the 24 internment camps across Canada. This has been done without government funding. I have donated money and book royalties so these plaques and monuments can be installed.
It has been only very recently that the issue of Ottoman internees has come up. There were 8,000 plus internees, mostly Ukrainian (5,000 plus), including women, children and even babies. There were also Croatian, Serbian, and Polish adult male internees--research ongoing by members of the affected groups. Believe me, the Ottoman adult male internment is not the only explosive political football here. Now that there's official recognition and funding, everyone wants a piece of the pie. It pains me that my grandfather's confiscated farm and the slave labour is now funding all this bickering. And in case you're wondering, I have received no funding for my book on this topic, and no funding from the endowment council for anything else.
I don't control any Ukrainian organization. If you want clarification from either of the other two groups, you should ask them. They're easy to find. I'm just a writer, sitting here with my tower of research notes, writing books on topics that are historically important but have been abused, ignored, or politically manipulated. If I got involved in the politics of each book I write, I wouldn't have time to write the books.
You probably know that my Armenian novels are used in schools in the U.S. and Canada and they've been the key means non-Armenians have become aware of the Genocide of Armenians. There are even dissertations written on my novels. You likely also know that the Georgetown Boys dorm at Cedarvale Farm was scheduled to be torn down, but my "Aram" books and Sam Hancock's play version of my books revived interest in that topic and the Canadian-Armenian community and Georgetown citizens were able to work together to get it designated as a heritage site.
The same can be said for my other books--I've written several about the Ukrainian experience in World War II as well as World War I, and these books have won many awards and are used in schools and loved by kids. I've also written about Vietnamese immigrants, and these books have also been critically acclaimed and loved by kids. That doesn't just happen: it takes intense dedication on my part.
Be assured that the book I'm writing now about the Ottoman internees will be historically accurate and nuanced, and free of influence from the denial machine.
I would love to see the Armenian and Ukrainian communities in Canada work together for common ideals. I urge you to connect with the UCC and the Shevchenko Foundation. You could also express your concerns to the current director of the UCCLA.
"Keghart" (www.keghart.com) 

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